Interview with Alvaro Ugalde, Director of the Osa Conservation Area, National System of Conservation Areas, Ministry of the Environment and Energy, Costa Rica

Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance

“Ensuring that people become educated and that money reaches their pockets can’t be achieved from one day to the next. We’ve been working for 30 years, and things are still moving slowly. But a well-protected park is a guarantee for the communities while they learn to use their resources in a more sustainable manner.”

Known as one of the architects of Costa Rica’s system of protected areas, Alvaro Ugalde has twice been director of the country’s National Parks Service, a post he held for a total of 14 years. He moved on from the government to administrative positions with the UN Development Programme, and later the Costa Rica-United States Foundation (CRUSA). Last February, Ugalde returned to government service to take charge of the Osa Conservation Area — known by its Spanish acronym, ACOSA — in the country’s southern Pacific corner.

The nucleus of ACOSA is Corcovado National Park, which covers a third of the Osa Peninsula and is home to such endangered animals as the jaguar and scarlet macaw. Together with the contiguous Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve and Piedras Blancas National Park, on the other side of the gulf, Corcovado protects the last significant expanse of rainforest on the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica. Ugalde, one of the founders of Costa Rica’s famous national parks system, was instrumental in Corcovado’s creation in 1975. Since leaving the helm of the Parks Service, he has collaborated with various conservation projects, among them the Osa Biological Corridor: an effort to reestablish a forested connection between Corcovado and Piedras Blancas National Parks, and to promote sustainable development in the area’s communities. We spoke with Alvaro Ugalde about the challenges he faces as director of ACOSA, and the future of the biodiversity in the Osa Peninsula and nearby wilderness areas.

Question: Why is Corcovado National Park so important to Costa Rica?

Ugalde: Fifty percent of the country’s biodiversity is found there — which is some 2 percent of the world’s total biodiversity. In biological terms, it is an exceptional area — it has high endemism and is a meeting point for species from North and South America. The creation of Corcovado was Costa Rica’s response to a movement to save the world’s rainforests during the 1970s. The park is the magnet that draws everything else to the area. Without Corcovado, the macaws and other remarkable animals would disappear, and with them, the direct economic benefits that the park provides the local economy.

Q: What are the principal threats to the park?

Ugalde: Out of ignorance, we created a park that is too small. At the time, we thought it was gigantic. What the years have proven, though, is that Corcovado is very small in terms of the area required by the biodiversity it contains, especially when we talk about critical species such as the jaguar, peccary, and harpy eagle. The isolation of Corcovado from other tracts of healthy forest exacerbates this problem. In the past, we erroneously assumed that the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve was going to be well administered. But it was pillaged, and the pastures that were created broke the forested connection between Corcovado and Piedras Blancas National Park. The fragmentation of the reserve together with an increase in hunting became the greatest threats to the Osa Peninsula’s biodiversity. The government had also drastically cut protection of the area in recent years.

Q: How viable is the proposal to establish the Osa Biological Corridor?

Ugalde: For me, the most important issue isn’t what has been damaged, but what is going to be done from here on. Because repairing a biological reserve is theoretically easy. You leave nature in peace, you pull the cows out of a pasture, and in 10 years, you have the beginnings of a forest; and in 20 years, you have a forest. The challenge is that no species disappear, because it would be possible to have an Osa with good forest cover, but without fauna, you would have what is called an ’empty forest.’

The task of restoring the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve is an enormous one, and it requires that people be willing and capable of making it happen. I’m speaking about all the players: government, land owners, etc. If we can agree on the means, the reserve will be restored, but hopefully it will be done with jaguars. They are a banner species for the Osa, and also one of its most endangered (a population of less than 100, according to studies) If we can’t stop the hunting, those 100 jaguars won’t last long.

People’s mentalities have changed. They want to conserve, but they also want to live, and the challenge is to find ways for them to improve their lives while conserving. I would say that there is quite a bit of forest, and that it holds a lot of fauna. What needs to be done is to put a halt to hunting, and put into practice the programs that will restore and maintain the forest. We already know what’s needed: payment for environmental services, private reserves, and ecotourism.

This is the main premise: we first need to put a stop to hunting in the park, which has been one of the measures we’ve taken since I arrived in this position in February 2003. Hunting reflects a lack of opportunities for local people, but it is also an indication that the park lacks proper management. I’m talking about stabilizing (wildlife) populations within the park first, then continuing the struggle in surrounding areas.

For that part, we need optimism, education, work with local people, and money to pay for services, or buy forests from people who don’t want to conserve them. It also requires the completion of a land-use plan for the forest reserve, so as to determine how future funding can best be spent. We also need to straighten out the land tenure situation, because a lot of people still don’t have titles for their property. The thing is, even though nature is key to the Osa’s economy, there are sectors that don’t receive any economic benefits from conservation and ecotourism. This is the big challenge: how to democratize the tourist dollar in the Osa Peninsula, to reach a point where more people are earning something, and taking better care of nature.

Q: What kind of relationship do local communities have with the park?

Ugalde: I think that now the communities are proud of Corcovado. The wounds of resentment made by the park’s creation 30 years ago have healed. I feel that the people of Osa are open to the general concept of conservation. Are there lots of disagreements? Of course. Do people not trust government? Sometimes, but not only in the Osa, but in other areas as well.

For communities on the agricultural frontier that are struggling to meet their own basic needs, it is difficult to forgive the failures of past governments — the abandonment and broken promises. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that the Osa has to be taken care of, and that the best way to save it is through tourism. Today, nobody cuts down a patch of forest to plant rice and beans on the steep slopes of the Osa. It is understood that the peninsula is extremely fragile, and that we have to learn to exploit it without altering it too much.

Q: Do you think that in order to preserve a protected area’s biodiversity, it is more important to train and educate nearby communities, or is it better to invest directly in the protected area?

Ugalde: We have to do both things. The key is to balance the investment. In the beginning, we invested more inside the area, because the goal was to get the park functioning, so that private investment could follow in its surroundings, and that’s what has happened.

However, you can’t say that economic improvement in Osa alone is going to save the species; it has to go hand-in-hand with more efficient management of the protected areas, with education and better incomes for the families living around those areas. For me, investing in the capacity of the communities is essential. But people resent it when organizations show up, talk, make promises, and families in rural areas end up as poor as they were before. Without a doubt, there needs to be a high level of investment in the communities, more than there is now.

Ensuring that people become educated and that money reaches their pockets can’t be achieved from one day to the next. We’ve been working for 30 years, and things are still moving slowly. But a well-protected park is a guarantee for the communities while they learn to use their resources in a more sustainable manner, such as through tourism.

Mechanisms for payment of environmental services would be more effective if they were more stable, more long-term, and they reached more people, such as indigenous communities, for example. Things aren’t so simple, though, because there are individuals who want to log, and the Ministry of the Environment and Energy is incapable of controlling illegal logging. I think that it would be difficult to help local people rise out of poverty without paying them for environmental services, because not everyone is ready to become involved in ecotourism.

Q: How can we achieve a balance between sustainable and unsustainable activities taking place on the peninsula?

Ugalde: That isn’t an easy question to answer. ACOSA is, on the whole, a region with limited services. If I say that everything we are doing is sustainable, but the dollars aren’t reaching the poor majority, then we’re not pulling it off. Osa has the potential to become an economically and ecologically self-sufficient region. There are misguided projects, though, and we need to see how we can re-direct this wave of development projects that don’t respect the environment, or the people, because the temptation to trample the environment in the name of employment is very great. We want tourism to come to Osa as much as the investors do, but what we don’t want is for it to be turned into a degraded, artificial place.

In other Pacific Coast areas, such as Dominical, there are environmental problems related to tourism projects. There’s a lack of management and coordination between the municipality and the environment ministry and abuses by investors who have built on steep slopes of the coastal mountain range. This is dangerous, and tends to be environmentally unsustainable. There have been plenty of accusations, but few prosecutions. The judiciary’s interpretation of environmental infractions and how they should be punished remains very weak, with little importance given to environmental infractions. This is also a big problem in Osa.

Still, small projects are the predominant trend in the area’s tourism, and Osa has a lot of potential for ecotourism development. If there is a little more coordination between the municipalities, the environment ministry, and the tourism institute, it is possible.

Q: What is the strategy for attaining the sustainability of Osa’s protected areas?

Ugalde: We’re working on two levels: The Osa Conservation Area is raising its own funds, and the National System of Conservation Areas is trying to raise funds on a national level for the payment of environmental services. It depends on whether the government manages to raise water and electricity rates in order to invest part of the funds in ecosystem maintenance.

We’re betting that the country will go ahead with a payment for hydrological service, the bulk of which should go to protected areas, as well as payment for water pollution, and the installation of a mechanism by which the tourism industry pays for the services of biodiversity and scenic beauty. None of this is being charged for now. We believe that a portion of water revenues should go to support the maintenance of wildlands. I think that this will start within a matter of months. It would be a sustainability tax. We are always going to need water, whereas tourism fluctuates more.

We need greater fundraising efficiency than the Legislative Assembly has granted us through the forestry tax and protected area entrance fees. We also need to be more efficient in our use of funds, and the development of a capacity for ACOSA to raise its own funds. This is the focus of our campaign for $30 million to create a heritage fund, $10 million of which would go toward establishing heritage fund with the goal of improving protection of Osa’s parks and reserves, $10 million of which would be used to settle debts with the owners of land within Piedras Blancas National Park, and $10 million of which would be used to pay for environmental services and for encouraging ecological easements and private reserves.

This won’t resolve everything. The campaign could fulfill just a small part of ACOSA’s needs, which will be billions over the years, but we are hoping to generate funds through the payment of services, admission fees for the areas, and through a change in mentality — the Osa’s hotels and other tourism activities also need to contribute much more to conservation.

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